Internet Billionaires' Climate Solution: Go Nuclear

This year's COP21 meeting in Paris effectively established a new legal framework that will help curtail further planetary surface warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Speakers highlighted the advantages of various renewable energy technologies in achieving this goal, but nuclear was still largely sidestepped by those promoting clean power as a priority. Outside the conference rooms of Paris, however, the announcement of a new "Breakthrough Energy Coalition" reinvigorated hope for the development of increasingly efficient, new generation nuclear technology. 

The Coalition is a group comprised of Internet-industry billionaires who have openly spoke about their concerns regarding about the future of a carbon-constrained economy. Gates himself has pledged to commit $1 billion over five years to research, and the other investors combined are expected to contribute at least as much. The Mission Innovation initiative - a group of governments that have pledged to double their research and development spending on clean energy within five years - has expressed similar goals, however Breakthrough's work from within the private sector sends an important signal that clean energy is the priority of big business as well. 

Gates has publicly spoken on his opinion that the current economic climate for sustainable energy isn't adequate for delivering abundant, clean energy at affordable prices. His Coalition will therefore fund long-term projects aimed at fostering the development of new innovations that might take decades to become ready for market. Gates has no intention of replacing traditional government funding of research and development, but he has stated that public-private partnership is crucial. We can therefore expect Breakthrough Energy to work closely with the countries included in Mission Innovation, such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Japan.

While the information that has been released about the Coalition has been a bit short on specifics and plans for implementation, there are strong indications that it will significantly fund the expansion of nuclear power. Gates explained that solar and wind are important sources of renewable energy but that we must remain open to pursuing “different paths.” This seems to be a reference to nuclear energy, which is more reliable than other forms of green energy and could scale up to meet demand much more effectively. It's also crucial to consider that the wealthy philanthropist is himself the chairman of TerraPower, a firm that's looking to develop the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Some of the other big names involved in the project are Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, Facebook principal Mark Zuckerberg and LinkedIn Executive Chairman Reid Hoffman. Many of them have already previously invested in green energy endeavors, such as Bezos' funding of Canadian company General Fusion and Branson's efforts in 2014 to bring cheap, renewable power to the Caribbean region. Even those who haven't especially focused on the energy sector have nevertheless aimed to make a difference with a variety of humanitarian efforts. Zuckerberg's Facebook Connectivity Lab is currently working on connecting the entire world, using satellite internet and solar-powered drones to offer service in areas where it's currently lacking. Reid Hoffman is a member of the board of Kiva, an organization that makes micro-loans, and he was instrumental in securing funding for anti-poverty software created by Segovia Technology.

There's little chance that wind, solar and hydroelectric power will be able to ramp up sufficiently to completely replace coal- and oil-burning infrastructure in the coming decades. And what about the development of negative-emissions technology? That's where an expansion of the nuclear sector comes in: a baseload power source acting in in conjunction with other renewables to keep the burning of fossil fuels to a minimum. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition and Mission Innovation seem poised to promote the spread of economically-viable nuclear technology around the world, here's hoping that their insurrectionary imaginations continue ever forward.